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In the push to transition from fossil fuels to greener energy, a key piece of the puzzle is accessing materials to help accelerate the technological shift — namely, rare earth elements.
The group of 17 metallic elements has the potential to be a key economic driver for countries mining and processing them. They are crucial for building components for everything from wind turbines and electric-vehicle batteries to cell phones and other products.
But they also come with lingering questions over the short- and long-term environmental impacts associated with the mining process.
Canada currently has only one operational mine, in the Northwest Territories, but with large known reserves there is big potential for more.
So how do we balance the need for mining the minerals with those environmental risks associated with the operations? And where does climate change fit in?
So what are rare earth elements?
The term rare earth elements is used to describe 17 metallic elements, including the 15 lanthanide chemical elements, as well as scandium and yttrium.
These elements, which tend to occur in the same ore deposits, are extremely valuable for a number of industrial uses such as clean energy, aerospace and automotive, but the catch is that they come in low concentrations. The largest global use for the elements is to produce permanent magnets in modern electronics.
Where does Canada fit in?
China dominates the rare earth market with annual production estimated at 127,000 tonnes in 2020, accounting for almost 60 per cent of global production. The United States (34,000 tonnes), Myanmar (27,000 tonnes) and Australia (15,000 tonnes) are also major world players.
“Canada has some of the largest known reserves and resources of rare earths in the world,” says Rebecca Gotto, manager of government relations at the Saskatchewan Research Council.
The research council is involved in the development of the first rare earth processing facility of its kind in North America, in Saskatoon.
As of last year, it’s estimated that Canada has more than 14 million tonnes of rare earth oxides.
The federal government and many provinces are hoping to capitalize on this new revenue stream.
Ottawa earlier this year said it was investing up to $3.8 billion in a critical minerals strategy, which includes looking for, extracting and processing rare earth elements.
In Canada, there are currently 21 rare earth mining projects in various stages of development, from exploration to resource estimation. They are in the Northwest Territories, Quebec, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta and in Saskatchewan, according to Natural Resources Canada.
What about Alberta?
Late last year, Alberta enacted the Mineral Resource Development Act, to change how the province will regulate mineral and rare earth development.
In November 2021, Energy Minister Sonya Savage spoke at a news conference about the potential for mineral development in Alberta.
“Our province is home to vast untapped geological potential, and we have an experienced workforce,” she said.
Savage said rare earth elements and titanium in oilsands waste streams have potential based on mapping of minerals in the province. “It builds on the cornerstone of our oil and gas industry and their expertise.”
Minerals provide a new opportunity, especially given the current majority of overseas production, Savage said.
“The places that are developing these resources are countries like China,” she said. “There’s geopolitical issues and there’s other countries that are developing them that don’t have the same labour and environmental standards.”
While exploration efforts in Saskatchewan and Alberta are in the early stages, ground has been broken further north.
The Nechalacho rare earth elements mine, 100 kilometres southeast of Yellowknife, is in its second year of operation.
The site has already shipped its first rare earth concentrate to Saskatchewan Research Council’s processing facility in Saskatoon.
All mining comes with a footprint
Kimberly Lavoie, director general of the policy and economics branch in the lands and mineral sector at Natural Resources Canada, says the race is on to mine the elements in Canada.
“The climate is changing rapidly. One might say that we’re in a bit of a climate crisis and so it very much is a bit of a race to ensure that we have what we need to be able to transition quickly and to do it sustainably,” Lavoie said.
But the sustainability of these sites is always a question, with the implications for the environment and people’s health at centre stage.
Isabelle Demers is a professor in minerals engineering at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue. She is also the Canada Research Chair in integration of environment in the mine life cycle.
“The typical environmental impacts of mining, I mean, the dust and the transportation of material, the storage of mine waste — that will be pretty much similar to other types of mine that we are really used to,” Demers said.
Risks associated with mining include excavation that can move material, digging into the landscape, dust, storage of mine waste and even groundwater contamination or surface water contamination.
“It’s not something that we can quantify easily right now because we don’t have much experience,” Demers said.
Canada can build on experience in mine waste management and environmental management, but the locations of the mines will be an important factor to consider, she cautioned.
“These new mines are probably going to be in very sensitive areas,” she said. “We need to develop more knowledge … to manage the mines in these sensitive areas.”
Those areas, like the Arctic or wetlands, can be difficult to work in; people in nearby communities often have concerns about the impacts on their environment, Demers said.
“If we want these minerals and if we want the technologies to reduce our effect on climate, then we will definitely have some impacts … the idea is just to be able to manage them as best as we can and reduce the negative impacts.”
Climate change will affect mining practices
“We’re going to mine things to help with climate change,” Demers said. “But we also have to take into account climate change in the way we operate and the way we reclaim and manage the environmental impacts.”
Demers said these effects are particularly true for clean-up. While some mining operations can have lifespans shorter than 10 years, reclamation — such as the management of the waste and prevention of contamination — needs to last much longer.
“They’re going to stay there pretty much forever on the mine site. So we have to be aware that if we want to, let’s say, freeze our tailings and integrate them into the permafrost, then it might not work for them in 50 years.”
Other impacts like precipitation patterns, particularly heavy precipitation events that we expect more of in the future, should also be a major consideration, Demers said.
“If there are more frequent rains, especially intense events, then we can have instabilities and we could have problems.”
Demers said accounting for climate change in mine management is still relatively new.
“The restoration work is going to be impacted by climate change. But it’s still like a new area of work.”
Canada’s first step into mining rare earths
The Nechalacho rare earth elements mine is the first of its kind in Canada.
According to Lavoie, environmental impacts were front of mind for that operation.
“It is actually mined without using water or any chemicals. So there’s no tailings pond. So [that’s] one of the things that people often associate with mining and the adverse effects of mining,” she said.
The Nechalacho operation is owned by Cheetah Resources, a subsidiary of Australian company Vital Metals. Cheetah Resources conducted a global deposit search which led to the Wigu Hill rare earth project in Morogoro region of Tanzania and the Nechalacho project in the Northwest Territories.
“Rare earths, particularly in China and some other countries, have a horrible environmental record so we set out to reverse that,” said David Connelly, vice-president of strategy and corporate affairs with Cheetah Resources.
Connelly said environmental processes at the mine are some of the most rigorous in the world, in terms of environmental safety and Indigenous participation.
“The big step we did … was selecting deposits that were friendly towards X-ray or a sensor-based ore sorting.”
He said those methods eliminate or greatly reduce the use of water and chemicals and the production of tailings, while using around 90 per cent less carbon.
“Rare critical minerals and particularly rare earths enable the greening of the economy as long as we do it in a green manner,” he said.
“I think there’s lots of opportunity for Canada to use its hydro, electrical and other green energy to extract rare earths and critical minerals.”
Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled “Our Changing Planet” to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.